Last Tuesday I attended Ken Howard ‘s annual show at the Richard Green Gallery. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Ken Howard and Richard Green is thst they are in their eighties and still going strong.
Arriving early I was able to speak to Ken and see his paintings without the crowd. I have known Ken for over 35 years and he is a delightful man, a great enthusiast of and for art, ebullient and without side. Not that his life was easy. He grew up poor in grim and working class Neasden an area of London mocked by Private Eye. Like many a painter his breakthrough came as a war artist. To be accurate he was the artist of the Imperial War Museum in Northern Ireland not officially a theatre of war during the troubles. A man who enjoys taking his easel on the street his affable nature even won over the IRA on the Falls Road, one of whom blew up a car Ken was painting as he thought it would be helpful in giving more of an effect. He fell in love in Florence with a German painter Christa Gaa but her family deemed him unsuitable in prospect and so she married another, Hartmut, who was. 20 years later she divorced Hartmut and married Ken. Two years after that she died of cancer. Ken’s third wife, Dora, was a girl who featured in at picture of Campo San Stefano in Venice. Although it does not trouble him he has, if anything, suffered for his popularity. The critics never really rated him but he enjoys telling the story of Bill Jacklin, brother of golfer Tony. After one exhibition a critic said – if you never buy another picture – buy a Jacklin. Sadly no one did and after that he scarcely sold a painting. Another popular painter Edward Seago was much the same as Ken. People queued up outside the Colnaghi gallery to buy his work. The late Queen Mother acquired them so voraciously that in the end Seago had to present her with two a year to release more to the public. Yet his legacy is preserved in the gallery not museum.
Like supporting the same team you tend to see the same Howard collectors at these exhibitions. I bumped into a gay couple I know in Brighton. Ken did a lovely study of the sea front from their balcony of their flat which hangs in Bob Tickler’s living room. Although some say he is popular because he is easy to appreciate there is something uplifting about his sense of light and bold colour.
He gave a speech. His theme was many including him would regard £4000 as a luxury for a picture but happily pay £20,000 plus for a motor car that is worth half that when it leaves the show room, costs £3000 per annum to maintain and remains in the garage or on a residents bay. A painting will give pleasure, cost nothing aside from the insurance and might rise in value.
The art world is however a strange one: unregulated and one where reputation can rise or fall. Ken was saying he remembered a time when Dufy and Rouault ruled the roost. Now you hear much less of them. Gwen John is now considered more collectible than her brother Augustus, the painter of his day. So it’s possible that Ken passes out of fashion but personally I doubt this. Seago never has.
Art buying is not for the naive or unwary. Provenance, condition and quality all require an experienced eye and no one is better than Richard Green who still attends auctions in his eighties. Unlike his sister Penny, who is also a Director in what is a family business, he is a quieter personality but I enjoyed talking to him. He was so enthusiastic about a Bonnard, my favourite of all painters, he acquired one. It might offend the cognoscenti but I see a direct line in terms of warm, well-lit interiors from Bonnard and Vuillard, to Sickert, to Ken Howard and Bernard Dunstan. Figurative art is always battling away against abstract but I know I would prefer any of these on my wall to a Jackson Pollock.